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'X' Marks the Spot

THE NAUTICAL CHART: A Novel of Suspense, By Arturo Perez-Reverte, Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, Harcourt: 466 pp., $26

January 06, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

All ahead, easy. Make for the Mediterranean. For adventure. Love. Mystery. Treasure. Betrayal. What a lovely, well-rounded and distinctive novel to lure us from troubled shores. In "The Nautical Chart," Spain's best-selling author Arturo Perez- Reverte has composed a contemporary and thoughtful suspense story of a seaman's happenstance, a woman's obsession and a desperate voyage by Jesuits that occurred 232 years earlier.

I say "composed" not just in the literary but in the musical sense of the word. This is a novel that reads ingeniously like jazz sounds, sometimes holding on to its thoughts for an extra syncopated beat, playing with them, digressing and then advancing unhurried. Early in his story, Perez-Reverte prepares the reader for the tempo to follow. Heaved ashore by bad luck, merchant sailor Coy, whose story this is, kills time in a mildewed room in Barcelona. From a Walkman, he listens to music: " ... (I)n which the bass had been sliding sweetly, the trumpet of Miles Davis came in with his historic two note solo--the second an octave lower than the first--and Coy, suspended in that empty space, was waiting for the liberating release, the unique percussion beat, the reverberation of the cymbal and the drumrolls smoothing the slow, inevitable, amazing path for the trumpet."

"The Nautical Chart" thus plays rings around its own story of sunken treasure--a New World cargo so inexplicably important that Jesuits hoped it would prevent their expulsion from Spain in the religious intrigues of the 18th century. Pursuing the shipwreck is the beguiling, mystifying Tanger Soto, a historian at Madrid's Naval Museum. Pursuing the lovely Ms. Soto is the sailor-without-a-ship, fish-out-of-water Coy, who is in a melancholy "Conrad" phase of his life, previously having lived "Melville" and "Stevenson" phases.

Pursuing them both is a professional treasure hunter who won't quite fit into the villain's stereotype; and lurking in the shadows is an Argentine dwarf with something up his sleeve. Late in the story, a first-person narrator unexpectedly steps forth--a development that furthers the story in less arresting fashion than it might sound here, owing entirely to Perez-Reverte's command of his tale and a cracking good translation by Margaret Sayers Peden.

Perez-Reverte, whose four previous novels translated into English earned him international standing, still does not quite stand on his own in this country. Almost every mention strives to link him to some writer of greater renown--a disagreeable habit in publishing, which serves neither reader nor author. So to clarify, Perez-Reverte is not the searching moralist of Conrad nor is he the swashbuckler of Patrick O'Brian. One might stretch and find an echo of Dashiell Hammett in "The Nautical Chart," if you could imagine Hammett writing to the beat of jazz.

What these comparisons serve to say, however, is that Perez- Reverte has written a mystery, but he is not a mystery writer of the bookseller's genre. Neither is his Coy a stylized mystery character. He is a sailor--impulsive, lovelorn and bearing the stoicism and sacrificial gloom of a man whose wake has been crossed by nature's caprice and no doubt will be again. Soto is the enigma at the core of this mystery, a daydreamer and a schemer who reveals herself slowly and never quite entirely. She uses her beauty, and guards against the advances it invites, manipulatively. She is, in short, just the kind of doom that a sailor cannot resist, any more than he can resist the enticement of another voyage and another risk.

A significant, but not overpowering, portion of this book explores the mysteries of navigation. These passages are not action adventure but historical adventure. With compass and an ancient atlas, plus old maritime records and the recorded story of a survivor from the lost Jesuit brig Dei Gloria, Coy and Soto labor to reconcile the 18th century understanding of the ocean with the millimeter precision of modern charting, hoping to fathom the Jesuits' fatal battle with a corsair and plot the ship's resting place. Sailing, scuba diving, fist-fighting, hard drinking and a dollop of lovers' passion drive the story offshore. By today's high-tech standards, this deep-sea part of the treasure hunt is a rather amateurish affair, but nonetheless engaging search for the needle in the haystack. And, by the way, Coy should know better: Wounds do not heal faster at sea.

Again, this is jazz, not hard rock or bubble-gum pop. "The Nautical Chart" is a sea story--told as a sailor might, off duty on the deck of his ship. With appreciation for character and detail. With keen command of pacing and no need to rush. You may have the same sensation I did: From time to time, I could feel Perez-Reverte peering out of the pages of his own book. Like any good storyteller, writer or musician, he makes eye contact to be certain that he's got hold of you. Because, my friends, down there on the bottom of the ocean is ... "something too important to hand over without a fight."

*

John Balzar is a Times columnist.

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